Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

How to Write About Muslim Countries

I’m a little peeved at myself for my last post…I don’t regret what I said, but it was more self-centered than I would have liked, and left out the incredible parts of living abroad. With that in mind, I’m going to look today at another article – Judy Bacharach’s “Twice Branded – Western Women in Muslim Lands” (bint battuta already dug into it here). You may also want to take a gander at the growing catfight between Phyllis Chesler and Naomi Wolf (documented pretty clearly on Chesler’s site)

The article, which you ought to go read before continuing here, basically outlines how western* women are treated in Muslim countries – according to Bacharach, we are forced into marriages, or if we choose to marry, our husbands will turn on us Not Without My Daughter style, or if we don’t marry, we’ll be branded as loose women. Real thoughtful stuff.

Okay – let’s get the truths out of the way first. Yes, there have been cases of women moving to certain Muslim countries with laws on the books that take away former nationality upon marriage (Iran has done this, whether you’re a believer of Betty Mahmoody’s story or not). Yes, there have been some highly publicized cases of forced marriage in Egypt. And yes, there is a prevailing attitude among some young men in some countries (including non-Muslim ones – anyone been groped in Italy?) that western – especially American – women are loose. Acknowledged, moving on.

That said, the first rule when writing about Muslim countries is to lump all Muslims together, as if they are one brainless homogeneous blob. The second rule, of course, is to ignore all of the happy, positive, and successful marriages between western women and Muslim men (or, assume that if there is a divorce, that it must have been because the man was Muslim…because, you know, no two people from the same culture ever divorce!) And while you’re at it, simply ignore any positive experiences in general from women in the Middle East and North Africa that don’t fit your agenda. The third rule is that you must never, ever, place blame on the poor western woman who went to a chatroom, met her husband-to-be, fell in love without ever hearing his voice or seeing his face, then flew a thousand miles to marry him and then – oh noes! – found that he wasn’t who he said he was. The fourth is that you must only trust the viewpoints of “Muslim reformers” and apostates: Muslim women are never to be trusted. And of course, never forget the most important rule of writing about Muslim countries – you must, must take every anecdotal incident as gospel.

Let’s go through these again, with examples.

Rule #1: All Muslims Are the Same.

Because of her experience, the occasional young American woman who is thinking of marrying a Muslim with an urge to return to his own country visits Chesler for advice. And she tells them what she knows: “This man you love will change overnight before your eyes. You will live but you will wish you were dead.”

Oh yes, Phyllis Chesler. The same Phyllis Chesler who says things like:

Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.

Ahhh yes, the ol’ argument that Muslim women are forced to wear hijab. Exempting Iran and KSA, which both have laws on the books, I fail to see how Chesler could arrive at the conclusion that “most” Muslim women aren’t given the choice. Is she privy to some information that I’m not? Has she entered the households of Muslim men and women to determine who is, and is not, forced by their families? Even if she had, would she listen?

But let’s move on, to Rule #2: Ignore Positive Examples

My friend Nasser says that he was told by “a leading female American journalist” that the press is “not interested by success stories of western women.” I don’t disagree. Take this lovely story in Saudi Aramco World: Nancy Abeiderrahmane is a British woman who has lived in Mauritania with her husband for 30 years and is responsible for commercializing camel milk in the country. Of course, the story doesn’t even touch on Nancy’s marriage (why would it?), making it totally uninteresting to western feminist journalists. Even if they were to pay attention, Nancy’s success in Mauritania would be treated as an anomaly.

In other words, nobody hears about the tons of western women who have successful marriages with Muslim men. No one hears statistics at all, let alone personal stories. That would simply blow their minds, and screw up their perspective that allows them to keep their hate nice and fresh.

Rule #3: It Is Always the Muslim’s Fault

There are lots of horror stories – some of which I’m sure are true – of western women marrying Muslim men, going to live in their country of origin, and finding out that things were not as they previously seemed. As much as I can’t stand Phyllis Chesler, I don’t doubt her life story (she married an Afghan peer in the U.S., moved to Afghanistan with him, and was mistreated by him and his family). And yet, I can’t doubt her naiveté: Who moves to a foreign country on a lark without doing their research? Same goes for Betty Mahmoody, who was blissfully unaware that Iranian law would consider her an Iranian, not an American. I feel sympathy for these women and how they were treated, but I also question the lack of blame placed on them – and the surely hundreds of women since – who have gone to a country with their husband or to marry someone, not learned the language, not studied the culture, then placed all of the blame on Islam, capitalizing on their stories in the process.

As one commenter on Bint Battuta’s post remarks:

The women I have tried to help in Jordan had no clue what they were getting into. Some of them were just plain uneducated and not smart. Some were mentally imbalanced or so thoroughly victims their marriages never would have made it in the US.

I’ve seen plenty of this myself, too. It’s becoming very common for Canadian and American women to meet Moroccan men online then travel there to live for a time, get married, and return home with their new husbands. Some of these marriages are successful – typically when the woman lives in Morocco for awhile before the wedding – but plenty of others fail precisely because the woman goes into it without bothering to understand her husband’s culture, or find out what he believes about things like religion and children, or assumes that she can change him.

Rule #4: Only Trust Muslim “Reformists.”

When was the last time you heard the opinion of a woman wearing hijab cited in popular media? Never? Exactly. That’s because all women are forced to wear hijab, of course!

What I find particularly funny is how these criticists (what else can you call them?) frequently remark upon how Muslim women are oppressed and silenced by Muslim men, then continue to oppress and silence them by not considering their voices in the media.

The rule, of course, is that you can only consider the voices of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji, Wafa Sultan, and Mona Eltahawy. Theirs are the only valid voices of Muslim women, because they’ve realized the error of their ways.** Never trust a woman wearing hijab – obviously someone put her up to it. Which brings me to the last rule…

Rule #5: Take Every Anecdote As Gospel

In her piece, Bachrach shares an anecdote about being told she should take her hamburger to her room rather than eat it in the hotel’s restaurant as if it were gospel. Chesler, in a recent piece, uses sweeping generalizations like “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves” and “A fully ‘covered’ girl-child, anywhere between the ages of 10-15, may still be forced into an arranged marriage, perhaps with her first cousin, perhaps with a man old enough to be her grandfather, and she is not allowed to leave him, not even if he beats her black and blue every single day.”

It’s important, of course, that whenever you have a negative experience in a Muslim country, you make general, sweeping statements about how that experience is the norm. Nevermind the thousands of Muslim women who are waiting until they finish their educations to get married. Nevermind the legal reforms. Obviously, only negative experiences count. Because…

Remember: All Muslims Are The Same

And don’t forget – all Muslims are exactly the same. If one forces his daughter to wear hijab, they all must. If one beats his wife, it must be because the Qur’an told him to do it. And if one young Muslim woman gets a PhD and then chooses a husband…oh wait, no…that would obviously never happen.

*I hate the term “western” but until somebody finds a better way to reference a population, I will continue to use it. But let it be known…I think it sucks.

**I totally respect all four of these women, but that does not make their opinions more correct or valid than the opinions of women who disagree with them.

21 Comments

  1. Argh, the battle of citing “reformist women in Islam”. It reminds me of a tug-of-war–the Muslim men disregard them and their views, but in the West, they are championed by the Media: “listen to the horrors of Islam, and you know they must be true, because they’re told by a MUSLIM”.

    Why can’t there be a middle ground? “No God but God” by Reza Aslan is a lovely example of this…shedding light on Islam in a wonderful way.

    Getting to the point, very well written article, Jillian, and the sarcasm translated over the net, no worries ;)

    • Thank you Sarah! I was a little worried when I saw the article being tweeted around that a few of the tweeters (tweeps?) didn’t quite “get” the title. Relief!

  2. I don’t know much about mona el-tahhawi, but the first 3 women deserve zero respect at all.

    • Well, I’d argue that Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves no respect, but I can’t say that the other two are as damaging as her lying ass is. Mona Eltahawy, though I disagree with much of her rhetoric, is actually pretty awesome.

  3. wafa sultan and irshad manji are even more disgusting than her. just read some of what they write/say, if you think chesler is bad.

    • I’m not as familiar with all of Wafa Sultan’s stuff, but I don’t have the problem with Irshad Manji that others do. I disagree with some of it, of course, but as someone who is, entirely, disgusted by religion, I can’t say I find Manji’s rhetoric all that bad.

      The difference between her at least, and Chesler, is that Chesler is incapable of viewing people as people.

  4. Enjoyed reading your post; you did a good job identifying some of the common strategies used to vilify Muslims. However, I am wondering if we can achieve much by blaming western women for being naive for marrying Muslim men. You say “I feel sympathy for these women and how they were treated, but I also question the lack of blame placed on them – and the surely hundreds of women since – who have gone to a country with their husband or to marry someone, not learned the language, not studied the culture, then placed all of the blame on Islam.” When you state that western women should be blamed for marrying muslim men, you imply that western women should have known better and not been involved with abusive muslim men and their backward culture (I know this is not what you mean). It’s rather also problematic to blame reformist Muslim women for contributing to this vilification. I am not necessarily defending them here (although I will argue strongly that Mona El-tahawy doesn’t belong to that list but she keeps getting pulled into the same pool because she is a feminist who is cited by Chesler types and doesn’t cover her hair). I believe that instead of blaming those muslim women, we should be criticizing why it’s problematic for western women to be referencing them the way they do. I think it’s important to mention how El-tahawy’s words are taken out of the context and used to demonize Islam in one of the articles you linked, for instance. Chesler and others would continue to write in a disrespectful, demeaning attitude toward Islam and the muslims even if Muslim reformist women hadn’t existed and those western women’s words would be still quite legitimate because of their experiences in the Middle East (and there are many examples of this). If we keep blaming women –western or reformist–, undermine their arguments by calling them “catfights”, we cannot address the real problem that both christian and muslim women suffer from: which is patriarchy. We cannot and should not remain silent to women’s rights abuses in the Middle East just because it is constantly used in the West to further demonize MENA and legitimatize military actions (I know this is not related to the scope of your post but rather my opinion). You are right on about the deliberate lack of positive images and stories told in the west.

    • Ece,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment – and you’re right, I didn’t intend to imply that western women are ever at fault for abuse. On the other hand, I have seen plenty of non-abusive marriages between western women and Muslim men fail for the very reason that the woman’s expectations were unrealistic (she expected she could raise her children Christian, for example).

      And to clarify, I also don’t think that reformist Muslim women are at fault (nor was I blaming them). The implication, rather, is what Sarah said in the above comment:

      “Muslim men disregard them and their views, but in the West, they are championed by the Media: “listen to the horrors of Islam, and you know they must be true, because they’re told by a MUSLIM”.”

      And we definitely shouldn’t ignore the human rights abuses – just as we shouldn’t ignore Muslim voices.

      Thanks again,
      Jillian

  5. Interesting article. I loved your sarcasm and it made me laugh. I’m a South African Muslim Hijabi-wearing Communications Student who has just moved to Boston and I loved this post as you’ve hit the nail on the head. Well done!

  6. also, unfortunately we really cannot change Muslim men/Arab men (there’s a big difference between the two…always differentiate between culture and religion although sometimes they may seem to cross the same lines), or at least not overnight. in the same way we cannot change Latino men or African-American men.

    there are certain stereotypes associated with each category that aren’t all false…so if a woman who chooses to marry someone does not do her full research (Note: a man you just met in America is going to be a different man around his family back home, naturally. perhaps to compensate for the fact that he married a non-Muslim/Arab? I don’t know) and gives up everything to follow him back home, that’s not the smartest thing she can do.

    and this is coming from an Arab woman.

    the point is, it seems like we’re always blaming the men (for example, when a girl gets knocked up, the man is always villified as if “he knocked HER up”…it takes two as we all know by now) when we should be encouraging our girls to be “smarter” (in the street sense). don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, and look out for yourself first and foremost because in the end, you’re the only one who’s going to get hurt (while he’s back “home” with Mama and Baba).

    great discussion :)

    • So because of who hates them I’m supposed to disregard everything that they say, even if bits of it ring true? I don’t stick to one side.

  7. Hi Jill,

    thank you very much for this post!!!

    Luckily, I have never come across anything written by Phyllis Chesler, would have driven me crazy.

    By the way, Jawad and I have been married for 7 years now. hu.

  8. nice post as usual ^^
    about the gang of four that you mentioned, my main critic is that they talk about Islam reform etc but.. they do that toward western media not really for muslims.
    about stereotypes, it reminds me a question that my Japanese gf asked me if polygamy exist in Tunisia, yes of course the last case in my family was my great grand father maybe one century ago :) (to avoid misunderstanding polygamy is prohibited in Tunisia since 50 years and any kind of marriage not done through civil authority is considered illegal and punished by jail in Tunisia).

    • Ah Rafik, but Tunisia is advanced in that matter. It’s still totally legal in Morocco (with permission of the first wife, of course) and elsewhere.

      As to the reformists, I think you’ve made the most important point – their audience (Eltahawy being the exception) is rarely Muslims themselves, rather, they’re basically kissing the western media/pundits’ asses.

      All that in mind, did you have any interesting experiences in Japan?

  9. Woah! I am shocked that you can even mention Mona el-Tahawy in the same breath as the oter three…you really need to read up before you make such claims!

    • I don’t see why I should be prohibited from mentioning her in the same breath. I realize her viewpoint is significantly different from theirs, however, she is just the same used as a pawn by so-called western “feminists.”

      I’ve read plenty, thank you. Perhaps you ought to re-read the piece and realize how you took my grouping her with them out of context.

  10. Jilian, I enjoyed the sarcasm in this post. Stereotyping is everywhere as much as narrow-minded mentalities are everywhere. This is generally speaking so in case of ‘Muslims’ I’ve always seen the lights shed on the dark side and ignored the light side which makes me always wonder.

    That said, Muslims and non has been stereotyped each into the other’s mentality in a wrong way which reveals how silly when people just narrow their minds and keep on following any ‘blah blah blah’.

  11. Jillian:

    One of the most flagrant deceits dissipated by Western media and governments are the organised denial of any type of plurality or cultural diversity in the Islamic world and it is becoming an extremely effective tool of dehumanising 1.5 billion human beings. The Islamic world is a Mosaic of cultures, traditions and social structures and to always magnify the extreme exceptions is simply demagoguery. I was born and bred in Morocco and for all the years I spent in that country I have never met somebody married with two women lets alone four. This idea that all Islamic societies are criminally patriarchal is really fanciful and duplicitous. Western media outlets for political reasons of their own go fishing for the bizarre and the extreme and render it as the De facto representation of an important slice of humanity. Opinion forming has been an effective indoctrinating instrument for many centuries to legitimise any acts against a vulnerable and crippled Islamic world trying to embrace modernity and progress, despite all the problems and insurmountable challenges it has to contend with. I am not denying that the Islamic world do have great setbacks that need to be solved and it will take many generations to achieve that goal. After all, this problematic has been going on in the West for hundreds of years and we still have not achieved a perfect dialectic of “Good Governance” and Democracy.
    “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” J W Goethe.

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